East Baton Rouge Parish School Board member Jill Dyason, who represents much of what could become the city of St. George, passed on the first petition but has signed the latest petition floated by supporters seeking to create the new city in the southeastern corner of the parish.
“I have always said that it’s not for me to stifle the voice of the people,” Dyason said. “I know this is a very hot subject, very divisive. I’ve always felt like, let’s figure this out, whichever way it’s going to go, so we can move forward.”
The Advocate contacted Dyason after the newspaper obtained a picture showing Dyason’s name on a page of the petition, along with her date of birth, home address and her precinct number. It was dated July 27.
Dyason, the longest serving member of the School Board, who took office in 2001, has long said she was against efforts to prevent a public vote on St. George but had previously stopped short of signing the incorporation petition that would force the issue onto the ballot. She told The Advocate she had considered signing the petition for a long time. She is the first member of the School Board known to have signed the petition.
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The board and the school system has generally been opposed to the creation of a new city and plans to eventually create a St. George school district out of the parish school system — as Baker, Central and Zachary have done before it.
School officials have said a St. George school district would have a severe financial impact on the parish school district, drawing money away from the schools in the rest of Baton Rouge, schools that generally serve the most challenging students, and that it would lead to further school balkanization in the parish. A few School Board members in the past have gone further, suggesting that the St. George effort is driven by racial animus.
Dyason said she’s not persuaded the current effort to create a City of St. George will inevitably shift to forming a St. George school district.
“Everything I heard this time was all just about the city,” she said.
Dyason acknowledged she has not told many people about her signing the petition, including many of her colleagues on the School Board.
“I definitely don’t feel that it is a School Board issue in any way,” Dyason said.
But whether it becomes one when the board meets on Thursday remains to be seen.
Dyason is in the middle of a fight to become vice president of the board and needs to win the support of at least five of the nine board members. Last Thursday, the board deadlocked 4-4, as Dyason tied with Dadrius Lanus, newly elected to the board, on who should become board vice president. The board plans to try again this coming Thursday.
In her 17-plus years of service, Dyason has never held a leadership position on the board, which oversees the second largest public school district in Louisiana.
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M.E. Cormier, leader of Better Together/Residents Against the Breakaway, which opposes the St. George incorporation, confirmed that she had snapped the photo showing Dyason's signature on the petition, although she was not the person who provided it to The Advocate. Cormier also confirmed that Dyason did not sign the first St. George petition, which was gathered in 2013 and 2014.
Cormier said she took the picture Oct. 20, one of several she took of notable signatories as she was paging through for the first time the 14,500 names on the petition. The parish Registrar of Voters Office is in the process of verifying the petition, and Cormier’s group is conducting its own vetting of the signatures.
Cormier said she shared a few pictures like the one showing Dyason’s signature with a limited number of people at the time, but said she’s not releasing information about them until Better Together completes its own review.
Dyason’s District 6, which includes the Woodlawn area and Woodlawn High School, falls mostly within the proposed boundaries of St. George. The area has been the epicenter of the St. George incorporation effort, as well as earlier unsuccessful legislation filed in 2012 and 2013 to create a southeast Baton Rouge school district from the parish school system, similar to what Baker, Central and Zachary had previously done.
In 2013, supporters of the breakaway school district changed tactics. Following the example of Central, they decided first to create a city before petitioning the Legislature again for a school district and decided to call the proposed new city St. George. St. George was already the name of a Catholic church, a subdivision and a fire department in the area.
The original St. George petition, submitted in late 2014, ultimately fell 71 signatures short of being placed on the ballot. St. George supporters ended their second petition drive on Oct. 15 when they submitted about 14,500 signatures. They need 12,951 valid signatures to get the item on the ballot — that's 25 percent of the registered voters living within St. George's proposed boundary at the time the petition drive officially began in early 2018.
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The July 27 date of Dyason’s signature is a week after qualifying ended for the Nov. 6 School Board elections. This election, Dyason drew an opponent for the first time in years, Tammy Dabadie, wife of former Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie.
Tammay Dabadie, who at first seemed like she might be a threat to Dyason, ended up barely campaigning and raised little money. Dyason won on Nov. 6 by nearly a 2-1 margin. Dyason last week started her fifth four-year term on the board.
Cormier said that both Tammy and Carl Dabadie’s signature appears on the latest St. George petition as well, dated March 5. Dyason said she knew Tammy Dabadie had signed the petition but said that had no bearing on her own decision to sign the document.
The original deadline to submit the latest St. George petition was Nov. 27, but supporters submitted it a month early. If they had stuck to the original timetable, the signatures of the District 7 School Board candidates would have been made public, at the earliest, after the Nov. 6 elections.
Dyason has two children who graduated from East Baton Rouge Parish public schools. She serves as executive director of the Louisiana Association of Children and Family Agencies.